Israel confronts ‘moral crisis’ after burning death of Arab teen

The arrest of six Jews on suspicion of burning to death a Palestinian teenager prompted calls Monday for soul-searching in Israel, with critics saying the country needed to take a hard look at racial hatred spreading among young Israelis radicalized by the festering conflict with the Palestinians.

A gag order prevented publication of more details on the suspects in the gruesome killing of 16-year-old Muhammad Abu Khdeir, who was apparently burned alive after he was seized in his East Jerusalem neighborhood.

Media reports identified the suspects as religious youths from the Jerusalem area, including high school dropouts, who acted to avenge the deaths of three Israeli teenagers kidnapped and slain in the West Bank last month. Three of the suspects have confessed and reconstructed the crime, police said.

“What happened to us is a very big crisis in our education,” President Shimon Peres said in a meeting with high school students. “In my view the crisis is not just a criminal crisis but a moral crisis. . . . We could not imagine that something so cruel and ugly could happen in our camp.”

Peres, whose position is largely ceremonial, had planned to visit Abu Khdeir’s father in a mourning tent in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Shuafat but was advised not to go for security reasons. He called instead to convey his condolences.

“I am ashamed on behalf of my nation and grieve with you,” he said, according to an account provided by his office.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanayahu also called Abu Khdeir’s father to express “shock” at the “despicable murder of your son.” He promised that the perpetrators would be prosecuted “to the fullest extent of the law.”

The calls were part of an effort by Israeli authorities to contain a wave of violent street protests that swept East Jerusalem and Israeli Arab communities in the wake of the killing, spreading Sunday to Bedouin towns in the south of the country.

In scenes reminiscent of two Palestinian uprisings, masked youths burned tires, hurled rocks at police and stoned passing cars. Riot officers responded with tear gas, stun grenades and rubber-coated bullets.

On Monday, the protests appeared to ebb in what analysts said was an indication of a reluctance to bear the hardships of a full-blown uprising.

Among Jewish Israelis, Abu Khdeir’s killing continued to reverberate. Amir Peretz, a left-leaning minister in the Israeli government, visited the mourning tent in Shuafat, joined by liberal Israeli lawmakers.

Rachelle Fraenkel, the mother of one of the Jewish teenagers killed in the West Bank, ended the customary seven-day mourning period with a public statement of sympathy with the parents of the slain Palestinian.

“Even in the abyss of mourning,” she said, “it is difficult for me to describe how distressed we are by the outrage committed in Jerusalem. No mother or father should ever have to go through what we are experiencing, and we share the pain of Muhammad’s parents.”

Commentators pointed to an anti-Arab backlash that swept Israel after the discovery of the bodies of the Jewish teenagers slain in the West Bank. A Facebook page calling for revenge garnered about 40,000 fans, with soldiers and other young Israelis posting pictures of themselves with homemade signs calling for vengeance.

On the night before Abu Khdeir’s charred body was found, militant Jewish youths marched through downtown Jerusalem shouting “Death to Arabs!” and assaulting Arab workers.

An editorial Monday in the liberal newspaper Haaretz cited a statement by Netanyahu after the bodies of the slain teens were discovered, in which he quoted a line from a famous Hebrew poem: “Revenge for the blood of a little child has yet to be devised by Satan.”

“The killers of Muhammad Abu Khdeir are not ‘extremist Jews,’” the editorial said. “They are the offspring . . . of the culture of hatred and revenge.”

Even as they absorbed the impact of the latest violence, Israelis braced for fresh hostilities across the border with the Gaza Strip as the government approved an escalation of airstrikes in response to persistent rocket launches at southern Israel.

A volley of about 30 rockets and mortar shells hit southern Israel Monday evening, the army said, hours after the Israeli security cabinet authorized the stepped-up air attacks and the army said it was calling up 1,500 reservists to bolster troops mobilized on the Gaza border.

The armed wing of Hamas claimed responsibility for the rocket strikes after vowing revenge for the deaths of six of its members in the collapse of a tunnel Monday in the southern Gaza Strip. Hamas said they were killed in an Israeli airstrike, but the Israeli military said they had died in an accidental detonation of their own explosives. Three more militants died in separate strikes.

It was the single highest death toll in Gaza since cross-border hostilities intensified last month after the abduction and killing of the three Jewish teens in the West Bank.